By Sarah Ferris - 10-04-16 20:38 PM EDT
Hillary Clinton and the White House struggled on Tuesday to explain Bill Clinton's blistering critique of ObamaCare, which exposed divisions in the Democratic Party over the healthcare law.
The former president's surprisingly strong criticism of Obama's signature achievement also gave Republicans free talking points ahead of the vice presidential debate.
Clinton unloaded on the Affordable Care Act during a campaign rally Monday afternoon in Michigan, a state where premium hikes are expected to be around 17 percent this fall.
"You've got this crazy system where all of a sudden 25 million more people have healthcare and then the people that are out there busting it, sometimes 60 hours a week, wind up with their premiums doubled and their coverage cut in half," Clinton said.
"It's the craziest thing in the world."
He then called for more a government-driven system in which people could buy into Medicare and Medicaid. Without that option, Clinton said, the law "doesn't make any sense" and "the insurance model doesn't work here."
A spokesman for the former president defended the comments on Tuesday, painting them as being in tune with his wife's overall healthcare message. The Democratic presidential nominee has called for ObamaCare to be adjusted around the edges but largely kept in place.
"And while he was slightly short-handed, it's clear to everyone, including President Obama, that improvements are needed," Bill Clinton spokesman Angel Urena said in an emailed statement.
Hillary Clinton's campaign also sought to do damage control, underscoring that both she and Obama had acknowledged in the last several weeks that there are "real problems" with the healthcare reform law, particularly on affordability.
But others saw Bill Clinton's comments as going badly off course at a time when the law is facing one of its roughest stretches in six years.
High-profile insurers like Aetna have fled ObamaCare this year, and states like Texas and Minnesota are facing premium spikes of more than 50 percent ahead of the election.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest was unable to explain the gap between Obama and the 42nd president during the Tuesday briefing, after fielding two questions about the comments.
"It's not exactly clear to me exactly what argument he was making," Earnest said. When asked if the White House wished Clinton had chosen different wording than "crazy" to describe the law, Earnest replied: "Of course."
Earnest rattled off a list of achievements under the 2010 law, such as 20 million newly insured Americans, increased competition and consumer protections that block companies from refusing to insure people with pre-existing conditions.
"I think what I would say is the president is quite proud of the accomplishments of the Affordable Care Act," Earnest said in response to the comments. "The American people benefit from the way the law has been implemented."
The GOP seized the opportunity to move the spotlight from GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump's campaign, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) tweeting that even the former president thought ObamaCare was the "craziest thing in the world."
Speaker Paul Ryan's (Wis.) office issued a release highlighting Clinton's criticism, along with stories about rising ObamaCare premiums.
Even Trump, who rarely mentions healthcare on the campaign trail, released a statement that said "even Democrats like Bill Clinton are coming to realize just what bad public policy ObamaCare really is."
The blunt criticism of ObamaCare comes in stark contrast to Hillary Clinton's careful embrace of the law throughout the campaign. She described the Affordable Care Act earlier this year as "one of the greatest accomplishments" in the nation's history, and frequently touts the law's coverage gains in her stump speeches.
Bill Clinton's calls for Medicare for all, also known as a "single-payer" system, echo some of the former first lady's own comments, after she stepped to the left on healthcare during this year's Democratic primaries.
She has proposed big changes like a government-run public option as well as the power for Medicare to negotiate with drug companies. Democrats in Congress have also signaled a new push for the public option, with 33 senators signing on to legislation to create one.
But by calling the bill "crazy," Bill Clinton approached a line that Democrats - including the presidential nominee - have been careful not to cross.
Even Hillary Clinton's primary rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), refrained from disparaging the law outright as he laid out his more progressive vision for ObamaCare.
Since the law's passage, Bill Clinton has occasionally taken the mantle as "explainer in chief" to help pitch ObamaCare to the public. But he has also voiced some skepticism.
In an interview with CNN in 2011, he said there was "some chance" that the Supreme Court could strike down the law.
In 2013, Clinton criticized Obama for promising people that they could keep their existing healthcare coverage under the law. He told the magazine Ozy that Obama should "honor the commitment the federal government made" by allowing people to keep their plans.
But as recently as this week, Bill Clinton's take on healthcare has been more aligned with the Obama administration's defense of the law.
In another speech in Michigan on Monday, he made a very different pitch for a government-run healthcare option - one that also applauded the law's progress.
"The change we need is not to wreck this thing and repeal it. It's done too much good," Clinton said. "The change we need is to create an affordable option for the small-business people and the working people who are not covered - that's what the public option is about."
Jordan Fabian contributed.